Ruth Bass | Not losers: Our veterans spend a lifetime with war's scars

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RICHMOND — Sixty-nine years after my Army veteran husband was told he didn't have to fight the Japanese, he was still having nightmares connected to his service in France, Belgium, Holland and Germany in World War II. He was neither a loser nor a sucker.

Milt and his college friends enlisted in 1943, leaving their carefree college days behind because their country called. Their lives were put on hold, and once they were actually in the thick of enemy fire, most of them realized they might not be around to pick up where they had left off.

The scars left on our veterans from the Vietnam War have become more visible as time has passed. Whether post-traumatic stress disorder is disabling or not, it's hard to imagine any person in active combat not experiencing some PTSD. But while WWII vets were even more silent about their war stories than the Vietnam veterans — as well as those fighting our many "small" wars — their physical and mental wounds existed.

For one top editor at The Eagle, it was lifelong bouts with dysentery, an inheritance from his time as a German prisoner of war. He didn't talk about it. For my husband, it was a lifelong problem with legs damaged when American planes, unknowing, bombed a house where the Timberwolves were. And a lifetime mental slide show of searching through emaciated bodies in a field and stacked in buildings when his unit liberated a German concentration camp.

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At college, Milt was majoring in zoology, aiming for medical school. When he returned to UMass Amherst, he switched to English and comparative literature as his major. Why? As a medic in the Army, he didn't want to see anybody die again. So he used the GI Bill to get a master's degree and passed the orals for a Ph.D — but didn't get it because he never wrote the dissertation.

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Instead, he answered a family need and came back to Pittsfield where he was hired "temporarily" by The Eagle. Except for a brief intermission as program manager at WMHT, he wrote columns, reported on culture, reviewed movies and theater and only talked about WWII by recounting the hilarious moments that occur even in the worst of times.

His silence ended when Roselle Chartock invited him to her Holocaust history class at Monument Mountain Regional High School. Knowing he never discussed the horrifying aspects of his war, I was surprised he said yes. He came home, dismayed because he had broken down in the middle of his talk. Determined to finish, he left the room, pulled himself together and returned to tell the kids the rest of his story. The notes they wrote him afterward were extraordinary.

In an interview with Gene Shalit on the "Today" show on NBC-TV, Milt confessed that he could still recall the stench of the concentration camp, and after the Monument experience, he wrote about war and the camp and the Holocaust, realizing the story had to be told by those who knew.

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He was not a loser or a sucker. He was an American patriot, increasingly an anti-war patriot, who had a flagpole installed near his vegetable garden so the flag he had defended was always there.

The president's irrational denigration of the military goes way beyond his abuse of protesters, the disabled and anyone who disagrees with him. Remember stones and glass houses. Remember bone spurs. It's Labor Day. Our soldiers are at work.

Ruth Bass is an award-winning journalist. Her web site is www.ruthbass.com.


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